Issue No. 94
Surely the best approach to this marvel—Brad Watson’s “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives”—is a direct one, without the intervention of my astonished effusions, to which, if the reader chooses, he or she can return subsequently.
So, I’ll assume this is subsequently, when the reader will already have encountered, for instance, the delicious stylistic brew of naturalness and exquisite finesse; the dazzling accuracy of description and dialogue, each hilarious line of which feels like the striking of a little gold gong; the combustive contrast between the tone—its gentle, ballad-like plaintiveness, innocent, modest, and amiable—and the tale it enfolds, ferocious, intricate, and anguished; the exciting friction between the story’s seemingly leisurely pace and the actual tight cohesion of its elements, which fizz around, locking together in rapid reconfigurations: It’s entirely plausible within the terms of the story that the putative aliens are bona fide aliens in the host bodies of, for example, mental patients, or that they are the phantom terrors and consolations of a mental patient who is telling us the story, or that they are mental patients—or aliens—pressed into service by a delusional narrator.
We are most likely to cast our lot in with the narrator and to see the events of his life in the way that he does; it is not this narrator who appears to be unreliable but the world. And the soi-disant aliens’ proficiency in manipulating dimensions, which enables them to be familiarly perceptible to us, is so convincing that we have the eerie sensation of seeing around the edges of the sensory and temporal delimitations of our lives.
What, we wonder, is memory and what is fantasy? Could there be a future more rewarding than the degraded and dehumanizing life available during these recent decades to most young people in a representative small American town? To what extent do any of us have control over our life? To what extent is it possible to have a shared experience with another person, even the person we love most dearly? Are any of us who we think we are? Are we even the sort of creature we believe ourselves to be? What, fundamentally, are human capacities and properties?
How modest, yet how unattainable, our aspirations for happiness seem—and how pitiable! We have to agree that the aliens have a point: the vision of adult domestic tranquility and fulfillment by which we, as well as the narrator, have been entranced, is, in the clear light of alien scientific detachment, disappointingly banal. And Olivia’s construct for her future is, in accordance with her character and abilities, so clichéd and threadbare as to be hardly more substantial than the magazines she reads, which have no doubt furnished its vague, conventional imagery and restricted emotional range.
Stunningly placed, late in the story, is a stark passage reminding us in detail of the sorts of dead-end futures that faced the story’s young protagonists at the time of their unfortunate marriage, rendering the narrator utterly vulnerable to a visitation from aliens who provide a seductive alternative to despair (or, possibly, rendering him vulnerable to an annihilating crack up).
Of all the story’s wonders, to me the most sublime is the unlikely residual radiance of nobility that clings to its human characters. It’s obvious that the particular aliens who infiltrate these pages far outweigh us in brains, skills, and poise—they certainly are in the prime of their lives! And yet rarely have our human qualities of sorrow, ineptitude, longing, regret, and their preposterous adjunct, hope, seemed so precious as they do here.
Author of The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
Support Recommended Reading
by Brad Watson
Recommended by Deborah Eisenberg
The day we ran off was hot, early August, no air conditioner in my 1962 VW bus. It topped out at forty miles per hour, so the forty-mile journey took us more than an hour, during which we drove along, kind of stunned by what we were doing, sweating, saying little, staring ahead at the highway, other cars and trucks blasting past us in the left lane. Just over the state line we stopped at a Stuckey’s and bought a pair of gold-painted wedding bands for a dollar apiece.
Olivia wore her favorite pair of red and white polka-dotted bell-bottoms. None of her other pants fit, by then. The bell-bottoms were low-waisted, and Olivia was carrying high, so she wore them often. She never did gain weight. She seemed to lose it. She threw up every day, throughout the day, from the beginning. How she’d been hiding that from her mother, I had no idea. She’d begun to look like one of those starving children in the CARE commercials, all big eyes, gaunt face, stick limbs, and a little round belly up high underneath her ribs.
We parked on the downtown square and started up the old brick walk to the courthouse door. But halfway to the building, Olivia headed back toward the bus.
I caught up with her, took her by the hand.
“Look,” I said, “what else are we going to do?”
She took a deep breath and then looked directly at me for the first time that day. The skin beneath her eyes seemed bruised from lack of sleep.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I want to do the right thing.”
“I know,” I said. “I do, too.”
We stood there listening to songbirds in the oak trees in the square, watching cars make their slow, heatstroked weave through downtown. A couple of old men wearing fedoras, sitting on a park bench in the shade, stared speechlessly at us, their old mouths open to suck a last strain of oxygen from the incinerated air.
She came along reluctantly. Once, she tried to go back to the bus again, but I held on to her hand. When we got inside the courthouse, she stopped trying to run away and sat like a chastened child in one of the hard wooden chairs in the anteroom outside Judge Leacock’s chamber as we waited our turn. Judge Leacock was known to marry just about anyone who asked. Two other couples sat there like us, silent, jittery. A third couple—a soft, pale, fat girl with pretty blond hair and a thin, pimply boy with a farmer’s haircut—waited in their seats with strangely beatific, vacant smiles on their faces, their hands on their knees. They seemed like Holy Rollers or something, but I didn’t imagine Holy Rollers would get married in a courthouse by a judge.
The ceremony took about five minutes. Judge Leacock was an older man with a slackened face and tired-looking folds beneath and at the corners of his eyes. But the eyes themselves were alert, even crafty, as he leaned back in the chair behind his desk and looked at us for a long moment.
“How old are you?” he said to Olivia.
“Eighteen,” she lied.
“You?” he said to me.
I lied and said I was eighteen, too. We were both heading into our senior year.
He asked us if we were sure we wanted to get married. I said yes. He asked us to sign the certificate, then asked us to stand up before his desk. He remained seated.
“Do you take this little gal to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you take this young fellow to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
Olivia stood there looking stunned, her lips parted, and stared at him.
“You need to be able to say it, darlin’,” Judge Leacock said.
“Yes,” Olivia whispered.
“I now pronounce you man and wife,” the judge said. “That’ll be five dollars, please.”
“Can I kiss the bride?” I said.
“Go right ahead.”
I kissed Olivia, pulled out my wallet, handed the judge a five-dollar bill. He gave us our copy of the certificate. We drove back home at forty miles per hour, windows down, sweating, not saying a word.